Volume 80 | Issue 2
March 2012

Competencies among new professionals in the union and activities field

Kaitlyn Moran

Each year, graduate students in student affairs receive a master’s degree and become new professionals in the union and activities field. Eventually, some of these new professionals will become mid-level managers, directors of student unions or campus activities, and even senior student affairs officers. They are the future of the field. However, new professionals, usually defined as professionals with fewer than five years of experience in student affairs, are typically lacking in certain competencies, yet these skills are essential for

Core competencies/Skill Sets

Human Resource Development
Organizational Development

future positions—or even their current ones. Recent research on new professionals’ competencies, the roles of graduate school and experience in developing competencies, strategies for further skill development for new professionals, and some advantages of new professionals offer implications for new professionals, their supervisors, and professional organizations.

Competencies of new professionals

Many researchers have studied the competencies of new professionals. New professionals do have some skills, gained from their graduate preparation program or their limited experience. In a study published in a 2004 NASPA Journal, Richard Herdlein III surveyed senior student affairs officers and revealed that new professionals are competent in many skills including counseling, leadership, knowledge of student development theory, and technology. Similarly, Jeffrey Waple’s 2006 study, published in the NASPA Journal, found that new professionals tend to be strong in competencies such as communication, problem solving, intercultural proficiency, program planning, and knowledge of student development theory. Michael Cuyjet, Robert Longwell-Grice, and Eduardo Compass1Molina surveyed new professionals and their supervisors in a study published in the Journal of College Student Development in 2009, and their results indicated that new professionals had a high level of competency in intercultural proficiency, knowledge of student development theory, and ethics and standards of practice. Moreover, in 2011, a study of senior student affairs officers and graduate preparation program faculty by Amy Dickerson and seven other researchers published in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice revealed that new professionals possess strong skills in knowledge of student development theory, knowledge of philosophy of student affairs, and technology.

While these studies focused on student affairs as a whole, in 2009 ACUI conducted an assessment of competencies among college union and student activities professionals, in which new professionals reported high levels of competency in communication and general administration and management. In addition, more than 90 percent of student affairs and higher education degree holders in the ACUI study felt competent in student development theory, which includes the majority of new professionals.

In general, the skills that new professionals have already developed match their job responsibilities. According to a 2004 study by Alan Burkard, Darnell Cole, Molly Ott, and Tara Stoflet published in the NASPA Journal, job titles for entry-level positions in student affairs include student organization advisor, student life coordinator, leadership coordinator, and assistant director of student activities, and these entry-level positions typically involve direct student contact and responsibility for program development.

Student activities or college union professionals responsible for providing direct services to students, such as student organization advising or event management services, need advanced knowledge of student development theory and counseling skills to effectively promote student development through their interactions with students. They also need to be skilled in communication to effectively communicate with students and colleagues, as well as multicultural competence to work with an increasingly diverse student population. New professionals responsible for program development require strong leadership skills to create a vision for the program, strong program planning skills to implement the program, and strong problem-solving skills to manage issues that arise. In addition, new professionals must be well-versed in technology to efficiently utilize all of the tools in the workplace to capably serve a technology-savvy student body, such as using social media effectively or providing technological spaces in unions. Student affairs professionals also need a thorough understanding of the ethics and standards of practice to adhere to these standards and be an ethical practitioner. Thus, in many ways, new professionals are competent in the skills they need to adequately fulfill their entry-level job responsibilities.

Despite their strength in many competencies, several studies have illuminated areas in which new professionals are lacking. In the same survey by Herdlein, senior student affairs officers stated that new professionals are weak on competencies such as budgeting and financial management, strategic planning, legal knowledge, knowledge of campus politics and organizational culture, and research and assessment. According to Waple, new professionals need development in budgeting and financial management, strategic planning, and supervision skills. In Cuyjet, Longwell-Grice, and Molina’s study, new professionals were weak in budgeting and financial management, and in Dickerson et al.’s study, new professionals lacked financial management, legal knowledge, and assessment skills. More studies, including a national study of new professionals by Kristen Renn and Eric Jessup-Anger published in the Journal of College Student Development in 2008 and a new professional needs study by Kristan Cilente and colleagues published in 2006 by the American College Personnel Association, indicated that new professionals are lacking in competencies such as budgeting and financial management, supervision skills, knowledge of campus politics and organizational culture, and research and assessment. Indeed, ACUI’s survey also revealed that the majority of college union and student activities new professionals do not feel competent in supervision, fiscal management, strategic planning, legal knowledge, and assessment.

Some of these underdeveloped competencies are skills that new professionals do not immediately need but may need in the future, such as strategic planning. However, many of these competencies are important in entry-level positions. Supervision skills are commonly cited as a competency that new professionals lack, and Renn and Jessup-Anger explain that “supervision is not typically included as a competency for graduate programs, because many entry-level professionals do not supervise full-time staff.” Despite this, in the study by Burkard et al., supervision was listed as a common position responsibility and an expected competency for entry-level positions in student affairs. In particular, according to the ACUI study, 61.3 percent of entry-level professionals in college unions or student activities report using supervision skills daily, while only 24.2 percent of entry-level professionals reported being “very” or “extremely” competent in supervision skills. Many of these new professionals may be supervising student staff, yet they are not adequately trained to supervise well. In addition to supervision skills, new professionals are lacking in other competencies important to their current positions. Senior student affairs officers in Herdlein’s study as well as supervisors of new professionals in Cuyjet et al.’s study indicated that budgeting and financial management skills are critical for successful practice for new professionals, but new professionals often lack these skills. Research and assessment is another underdeveloped competency, yet Burkard et al. noted that assessment, and particularly program evaluation, is necessary for “evidence-based practice” of student affairs. Finally, Cilente et al., Herdlein, and Renn and Jessup-Anger all highlight the importance of understanding the campus organizational culture and politics to successfully work with colleagues, while noting that new professionals often need help in this area. Hence, new professionals must find a way to develop these skills to successfully fulfill their job responsibilities.

Interestingly, some studies had conflicting results on the competencies that new professionals have mastered or need to develop. For example, Dickerson et al. and Cuyjet et al. found that new professionals tend to have strong knowledge of research methods, but the studies by ACUI, Renn and Jessup-Anger, and Herdlein all indicated that new professionals need to develop these skills. This may be because master’s level graduate students are extensively taught research methods but rarely have the opportunity to practice applying these skills. Additionally, in ACUI’s and Waple’s surveys, entry-level professionals report strong communication skills, but other studies including Herdlein and Dickerson et al. have indicated that senior student affairs officers and graduate preparatory program faculty believe new professionals lack writing skills. This may indicate that new professionals overestimate their own skills, or that they believe their oral communication skills make up for what they lack in written communication skills. Conversely, Herdlein’s and Dickerson et al.’s studies show that senior student affairs officers believe new professionals have strong technology skills, but in Waple’s survey, new professionals responded that they had not acquired the skill “Use of microcomputers in higher education,” and in fact ranked it last among all attained skills. Again, this may be a perception issue, where new professionals do not realize their strengths in technology because many of them have grown up in a culture rife with technology, where strong technology skills are the norm. However, it could also stem from a misunderstanding of the term “microcomputer,” which has fallen into disuse in everyday language.

Developing competencies

New professionals are competent in many areas relevant to union and activities, but how do they develop these skills? Typically many competencies are developed through graduate preparation programs, and competencies are learned or improved through postgraduate experience. In addition, there are specific methods that new professionals can use to develop their skills.

Graduate school
Graduate preparation programs play a large role in developing competencies. A master’s degree in student affairs or counseling is highly preferred by employers, according to a study by Mark Kretovics published in the Journal of College Student Development in 2002. This is likely due to the competencies that graduate programs help develop. Graduate programs are designed to prepare their students to become student affairs professionals through their courses, coupled with out-of-the-classroom learning experiences through assistantships, internships, or practica. According to the standards for master’s level student affairs professional preparation programs outlined by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), all graduate preparation programs should include “1) foundational studies, 2) professional studies, and 3) supervised practice” in their curriculum. Foundational studies provide an overview of the profession of student affairs as a whole, including historical, philosophical and cultural perspectives. Professional studies provide a theoretical foundation for practice through courses that cover topics such as student development theory, organization and administration of higher education, and assessment. And supervised practice provides a structured professional experience, where graduate students can learn about student affairs work through engaging in it.

Each of these components of preparation programs is important for developing competencies. Professional studies introduce graduate students to competencies in a theoretical way, particularly knowledge of student development theory and counseling skills, and supervised practice allows graduate students to apply and hone these competencies that they learned in the classroom. According to Linda Kuk and Blanche Hughes in a 2003 essay in the Journal of Student Affairs, the “carefully constructed experiential learning opportunities” of supervised practice facilitate learning to apply theory to practice. With supervised practice, graduate students can learn from their mistakes through the frequent evaluation and feedback. For example, according to Brandon Frye’s doctoral dissertation on the acquisition of supervisory skills during graduate preparation programs of new professionals in residence life and housing, new professionals who had previously held a graduate assistantship in housing, where they had the opportunity to supervise student staff, had stronger supervisory skills than the new professionals who had not. Practical experience during graduate school also provides a structured opportunity to reflect with and receive feedback from faculty and supervisors, which Kretovics postulated was why a relevant graduate assistantship was the most important characteristic of candidates to student affairs administrators hiring for entry-level positions. Further, practicum supervisors often serve as a mentor to the graduate students they supervise, according to Kristen Renn and Jennifer Hodges in their 2007 study published in the NASPA Journal.

In addition to professional studies and supervised practice, foundational studies help students to develop competencies such as knowledge of the history and culture of student affairs. These competencies are often perceived as less relevant to entry-level student affairs work, as reflected in Waple’s survey results. However, they are important for providing a big-picture understanding of student affairs as a whole.

Postgraduate experience
Postgraduate experience, like supervised practice in graduate school, helps develop new professionals’ competencies. Practice and reflection is a common way that new professionals develop their skills. Jon Dalton advocated developing supervision skills through practice and reflection in a chapter of Susan Komives and Dudley Woodard’s 2003 book, “Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession.” Similarly, Peter Magolda and Jill Ellen Carnaghi emphasized the importance of new professionals “taking time for reflection” in their book, “Job One: Experiences of New Professionals in Student Affairs,” published in 2004. Trying out
underdeveloped skills and reflecting on what is successful or not is an individual method for developing competencies, and in this way, new professionals can gain the skills they need through experience.

The experience of new professionals is different from their graduate experience of supervised practice. New professionals in their first postgraduate year of full-time student affairs work in Renn and Hodges’ study highlighted how their experience differed from their Compass2graduate practica, most noticeably in the responsibility for professional development. While graduate students are closely supervised, where their supervisor is invested in their professional development and often serves as a mentor, many new professionals in the study discovered that their current supervisors were less interested in their professional development and primarily cared about job performance. Some participants demonstrated dismay that they had not yet talked about their professional goals with their supervisors, even mid-way through the academic year, which was in stark contrast with their graduate practica. Unlike graduate students, new professionals have a responsibility for their own professional development, and they should not expect their supervisor to provide development for them. However, because of this individual responsibility, new professionals in the study gained a greater awareness of their own professional development needs, as well as the ability to articulate those needs.

In addition to increasing individual responsibility, professional experience develops competencies in different ways. According to Renn and Hodges, experience helps new professionals gain a growing confidence in their own abilities and deeper understanding of how to incorporate the concepts from graduate school into practice. Experience introduces new professionals to the reality of the profession, where theory is utilized differently—and often more indirectly—than in the classroom, according to Cilente et al. As one participant in Renn and Hodges’ study said, new professionals learn how to work with “real people rather than hypothetical theories.” New professionals acquire knowledge in graduate school but learn how to apply it during their professional experience, a finding echoed by Renn and Jessup-Anger. With increased confidence and improved application skills, new professionals are better able to develop specific competencies.

One skill that tends to be greatly improved within the first year of work is new professionals’ understanding of organizational culture and campus politics. Though organizational culture is often discussed in graduate programs, many new professionals still have difficulty identifying culture and understanding the importance of “fit” with an institution. In both Renn and Hodges’ 2007 study and Renn and Jessup-Anger’s 2008 study, new professionals had an awareness of the importance of fit from their graduate institutions, but did not fully perceive the importance until experiencing a new culture as a new professional. Often the only basis for information about the culture at a new institution is interviews, as one participant in Renn and Hodges’ study noted. During interviews, everyone tends to be “on their best behavior,” Susan Jones and Michael Segawa assert in “Job One,” which does not provide much information for a recent graduate. After beginning their full-time professional work, new professionals are fully immersed in the institutional culture. Adjusting to new cultural norms is one of the primary challenges that new professionals face, according to Renn and Jessup-Anger.

Most new professionals in their study not only successfully adjusted, but also deepened their understanding of “the pervasive role of politics” on college campuses. Many participants felt unprepared for the political nature of student affairs work and spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how and why certain changes happen and others do not. Likewise, participants in Renn and Hodges’ study had difficulty adjusting to their role as a new professional at the bottom of the hierarchy, since their graduate programs had not given them an understanding of “how positional power shapes influence.” Their graduate programs often presented case studies where the student plays the role of vice president or dean, but new professionals do not have that sphere of influence in their entry-level positions. New professionals in Cilente et al.’s focus groups also expressed the importance of fit and of understanding the political environment of their campus, indicating that many aspects of culture, such as informal job expectations like joining colleagues for lunch, were “learned through observation.” Experience provides new professionals with opportunities to encounter and observe the cultural norms and political nature of their institution in a way that graduate students do not, which helps them understand the role of campus politics and organizational culture.

Targeted methods
While graduate school and experience both improve new professionals’ skills, there are specific strategies for developing skills that new professionals can employ. According to a study by Darby Roberts, published in 2007 in the NASPA Journal, student affairs professionals primarily develop their skills through methods such as discussions with colleagues, mentoring relationships, and campus workshops. Cilente and her colleagues echoed this finding, citing national, regional, and campus workshops along with mentors as successful methods of professional development. Reading literature, particularly handbooks including “Beginning Your Journey: A Guide for New Professionals in Student Affairs,” by Marilyn Amey and Lori Reesor, or “Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession,” by Susan Komives and Dudley Woodard, can also help new professionals develop. For example, “Beginning Your Journey” has chapters specifically devoted to understanding organizational culture and supervision skills, while “Student Services” has chapters on strategic planning, finance, and assessment and evaluation, all areas in which new professionals often need more development. Alternatively, new professionals can further develop their skills by reading literature intended for student affairs practitioners with more experience, like Lori Varlotta’s article on budgeting models published in 2010 in New Directions for Student Services, which is aimed at “managing and aspiring” senior student affairs officers.

Mentors are particularly important for new professionals to encourage professional development. In Cilente et al.’s study of new professionals’ development needs, mentoring was the top-ranked preferred method of development for the majority of needs, yet many new professionals struggled to form a mentoring relationship. Similarly, new professionals in both Renn and Hodges’ and Renn and Jessup-Anger’s studies looked for mentors during their first year of full-time professional work. Mentors provide “career guidance and psychological support” to their mentees, according to Diane Cooper and Theodore Miller in a report published in New Directions for Student Services in 1998. For new professionals, psychological support from someone who has experienced a similar career transition can be invaluable. Additionally, with a mentor, new professionals can gain insight into which direction of professional development would be most useful for them and feel supported enough to pursue that development.

Transitioning to a full-time position for the first time is a challenge, and supervisors are necessary to provide the support that new professionals need to grow developmentally, according to Michael Ignelzi and Patricia Whitely in “Job One.” Supervisors can help employees develop their skills by providing opportunities for them to attend workshops and conferences, helping new professionals network, or allowing them to practice their competencies by assigning responsibilities that utilize those skills. Providing support and feedback to new professionals is important, according to Renn and Jessup-Anger, and supervisors are in a key position to do this. Ashley Tull recommended synergistic supervision for new professionals in a study published in the Journal of College Student Development in 2006. First described by Roger Winston and Don Creamer in their 1997 book, “Improving Staffing Practices in Student Affairs,” synergistic supervision is a collaborative method of supervision, where the supervisee has an active role in his or her own supervision, and emphasizes personal as well as professional development. Supervisors and supervisees identify weaknesses and development strategies together, often through discussions of good and inadequate job performance, long-term goals, and personal attitudes. Tull’s study found that synergistic supervision was positively correlated with new professionals’ perceptions of opportunities for professional development and negatively correlated with new professionals’ intention to leave their current position or the field of student affairs. With synergistic supervision, or a different method that provides adequate support and feedback, supervisors can help improve new professionals’ competencies effectively.

Most importantly, new professionals need to maintain a lifelong learning philosophy. By continuously learning new ideas, theories, and competencies, new professionals can better themselves and best support students.

Advantages of new professionals

Though new professionals have several underdeveloped skills, there are many unique advantages that new professionals have. Michael Fried described some advantages of “juniority” in student affairs in a report published in the Journal of Student Affairs at New York University in 2011, including new professionals’ “generational proximity” to current students, “energy and enthusiasm,” knowledge of theory, and technology skills. New professionals typically are close in age with current students and have recent experience as a student. Thus, they have a strong understanding of the current student culture and are able to relate to students easily. Since they are new to the profession, they have not yet experienced burnout, but still have a fresh energy for their work. They often have recently finished their graduate preparation program, where they learned theories that may not have been developed when their more seasoned colleagues were attending graduate school. Additionally, they have a strong knowledge of technology and its use in higher education, particularly social media, because it was “a part of their own education experience,” as Fried said. New professionals can draw on this experience to understand the importance of technology inside and outside the classroom, and explain this technological culture to their colleagues. Because of juniority, new professionals bring an important perspective to student affairs and can partner with seasoned colleagues to best serve students.

Moreover, in some ways, new professionals’ inexperience is an advantage. Some new professionals in studies by Renn and Hodges, Renn and Jessup-Anger, and Cilente et al. indicated that they left graduate school with ideas for changes and improvements to student affairs practice but were frequently met with opposition, mostly in the form of institutional politics. New professionals might express their ideas, but may be discredited because of their lack of experience, such as by a more experienced colleague asserting that the change has already been tried in the past. However, today’s students are different than the students of decades or even years ago, and what was unsuccessful then may be successful now. Magolda and Carnaghi urge finding a balance between new professionals’ tendency to attempt change based on theory and seasoned professionals’ resistance to change based on experience. New professionals’ willingness to try new things and to challenge the status quo, unencumbered by experiential knowledge of the past but armed with a strong knowledge of new theories, can be a strong advantage that just might create an exciting innovation for student affairs.


New professionals have developed many competencies, especially skills that are typically important for entry-level positions. However, there are many important competencies that new professionals still need to learn, including some skills required for their jobs. Seasoned professionals can help new professionals develop by serving as a mentor, either informally or through a formal mentoring program. Supervisors of new professionals can provide support during their difficult transition by utilizing concepts from synergistic supervision to encourage employees’ professional development, including seeking out opportunities and providing time for their supervisees to participate in mentoring programs or attend workshops and conferences. In addition, practicum supervisors can better prepare graduate students by targeting the skills that new professionals typically lack. Supervisors of graduate assistants may consider redesigning their available assistantships to offer experience with competencies that graduate preparation programs usually overlook, such as budgeting or supervision skills. ACUI and other professional organizations can (and often do) offer mentoring programs and networking opportunities for new professionals along with workshops that teach specific competencies. ACUI can also offer workshops for supervisors of new professionals to encourage adequate support for transitioning new professionals and to train on synergistic supervision. 

Most importantly, new professionals can take advantage of all of the opportunities available to them through their professional network, their supervisor’s and mentor’s professional networks, professional organizations, and the literature. By taking personal responsibility for their own professional development, new professionals can demonstrate their maturity and differentiate themselves from graduate assistants. Together, everyone can help new professionals become competent seasoned professionals, and ensure a successful future for college unions and student activities. 

Contributor biography

MoranKaitlyn Moran is a program coordinator in Campus Activities at North Carolina State University, where she advises the Union Activities Board. She holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree in higher education administration from Boston College. Her professional interests include late-night programming, assessment, graduate assistant professional development, and the experience of new professionals.